We’d turned off the motorway just in to the border after hours of a long, hard drive, pitiful mewing coming from the back every time we’d bumped over a pothole on the way. Belgian motorways are pretty crap, it must be said. The car seemed to crawl through the smooth, even streets after hours of whistle and whiz and I remember the butterflies, the short breaths and wide-eyed need to take it all in. The houses looked vaguely familiar after months of daily trawling through a louer websites in an effort to find a new home, their style, however, unfamiliar and strange to my British eyes. There were snapshots of oh-so-continental French mixed with dashes of German and modern boxes dotted amongst them looked like enlarged models on a table in an architect’s studio. Staring through the floor to ceiling windows, I half-expected to see life-size plastic models going about their business, showing how life could be in these tile floored, triple glazed, class B energy-efficient abodes. Le chat quietened in the back. Village after village passed until we wound our way upwards and a scene I’d envisaged hundreds of time in weeks previously unfolded as the car finally slowed to a halt. This was really happening. This was it. I was really here.
I sometimes drive through those first villages I saw, my first real glimpse of the Small Country that was to be my home for the foreseeable future three months ago and, every time I do, I still get butterflies and stare at the houses, the memory of that day having been etched in my head. The open land between the villages look very different now, trees are mostly bereft of leaves, twisted branches pointing upwards to an often wild sky or looming out of a foggy gloom. The slightly raised beds in the centre of the roads as I approach the small roundabouts have had their shrubbery neatly pruned now and salt grit bins have appeared, complete with handy shovel standing to attention next to them. The Gaura lindheimeri and Verbena bonariensis which waved in the autumn breeze amongst the central bed through one village has been cut down for the winter but I recall the delight and almost relief at seeing such treasures were here.
A few days after we arrived, I heaved my old deckchair out of the small barn at the side of the house and spent a couple of hours sitting in the warm afternoon sun reading a glossy magazine, a scene which caused Joe Brown to smile widely. It’s not often that I just sit in a garden but, that afternoon, time stretched out before me a’plenty. I’d tackle the dull garden later. The warmth didn’t last and I can’t remember the last time I walked up the steps outside the back door to even look at the back garden which can’t be seen from any window in the house. Later, another time, really.
We slept on an airbed the first night we were here, our furniture thundering across crap Belgian roads on its way. The morning sun pressed against the curtains, the light slowly seeping out their sides and spreading across the bed. I didn’t hear the 7 am church bells that morning. I hear them most weekday mornings now although, for the most part, the first sound I hear is a slight click of a cup being put down on the chest of drawers. Joe Brown is unfailing in his daily task of bringing me a cup of tea in bed. Occasionally I wake earlier, sometimes stirring as he leaves the bed when it’s still dark, the skin on his back and shoulders looking momentarily patterned as though covered in a huge intricate tattoo until my eyes adjust. We are a one-car family of two now and if I want the car for the day whilst Joe Brown’s at work, I have to leave the warmth of our bed and drive him to the bus stop, full beam headlights snaking round the hairypin bends and over the top of the next hill, the narrow road cutting through fields with dark silhouettes of cows and horses, their shapes filtered by the heavy fog often hanging in the not quite dawn. We drive past the donkeys who seem to have finally been taken in for the winter. There were three when we first arrived but now there are two. Joe Brown tried to placate my worries by suggesting perhaps one was in training for forthcoming manger duty but I’m not convinced and fear the worst. I confess I’ve sometimes returned to bed once home again, not to sleep, but to contemplate my day and make decisions as to what to do with it. My work trousers have remained in the drawer since arriving and I’m shocked that this is the case, cold weather and not really looking for work aside. The one gardening job I did two weeks ago in a garden a few kilometres away resulted in a swollen thumb which is still far from right.
I have driven a lot, my fear at driving on the other side of the road slowly abating as I swing round corners and across junctions with sometimes nary a thought in my husband’s ridiculously fast car. Sally satnav has become a jolly good friend although I confess I sometimes snicker at her appallingly bad pronunciations of French-named roads. I can occasionally be found trailing round a supermarche or two undoubtedly wearing a look of some bemusement and vaguely confused. I find it strange, nay rather bizarre, that I am doing something as basic as food shopping when I cannot understand many of the signs and tannoyed announcements which can be in any one of three languages. Clementines can be bought still with leaves on and I buy oranges individually wrapped in twists of paper. Cherry tomatoes taste as though I grew them in the garden. I scrabble in my bag for the now tatty list of translations for different fish whilst waiting in vague line at the poissonerie, watching a madame next to me choose two crabs which are held up for inspection before being put in a plastic bag, their claws and legs still flailing at their forthcoming fate. Shopping malls are awash with the scent of freshly brewed coffee from the plethora of cafes and eateries, trolleys full of bought provisions parked near tables as shoppers rest with espressos or glasses of wine. A young mother, her long blonde hair pulled in to a ponytail, rocks a pushchair with one foot whilst eating a plate of moules mariniere on her own. Triangles of pre-packed sandwiches are here but they are not easy to find. Piles of baguettes, stuffed with ham, cheese and salads are everywhere. I have found a lingerie shop full of pretty frillies, with bras three times the cost of the pair of Levi’s acquired today. The cup size of bras in French is bonnet which made me chortle at its sweetness and apt suggestion of ribbon and lace.
A lady who at 30 paces is so obviously French has started to come to the house once a week. I make coffee in proper cups with saucers and ensure I am wearing lipstick. We speak French the whole time although I am very stilted and slow, often trailing off as I either cannot remember or simply do not know the word. Despite this, we press on, sometimes lapsing in to conversations about shoes and the oft square shape of German clothes and she leaves workbooks and papers with me to study before the next lesson. She strokes le chat as she leaves, referring to him as le minou. I sometimes have to stifle a laugh as I stand in warrior pose with three other women in an apartment in front of a lady whose serenity dribbles all over her yoga mat because this, all of this life that I have, the place where I’m at, seems rather unreal.
As I lay in bed sipping tea this morning, I asked myself if I wanted to go back, go back to The Little House by the Big Wood and the life that we had there. My answer was no. I’ve been slow to start here for sure, picking my way round this tiny country rather timidly and by no means have I hurled myself in to a social whirl but I’ll find my way. Still, surprisingly, my answer was no.
“Really?” I queried my self